“To me it just seems obvious. I don’t want to cause pain to another living, empathetic creature. I don’t want to take its babies away from it. I don’t want to force it to be indoors and fattened up just to be slaughtered. And I don’t understand how you could witness that and not be affected by it.”
— Joaquin Phoenix
The Moral Glitch
Our sense of empathy and altruism does not scale well with numbers. It’s much easier to empathise with one individual in a certain circumstance, than it is to evoke a similar level of empathy and altruism for let’s say a 100, even if they’re in the exact same situation. One might assume that altruism or empathy are additive, in the sense that, we should be able to exhibit them more, as the number of people requiring our help increases, but that’s not the case. Instead, our sense of urgency and sensitivity is numbed by large numbers. As the numbers go up, our ability to empathise and show altruistic behaviour diminishes, to the point where we simply cannot process emotions the same way when talking about people in 100s of thousands.
This is not a feature, but a glitch in the Human brain. This accounts for what has been termed as ‘Genocide Neglect’ by Paul Slovic, who has done extensive research on this. It’s very difficult to care about genocides, in the sense that the thought of lives being lost in large numbers, simply doesn’t register the same way, as the death of a single individual. When talking about the present global food systems, we’ll see how this glitch translates to how we tend to feel about other non human animals in large numbers, versus a single animal or perhaps our own pet.
In 2018, as per the UN Food and agriculture organisation an estimated 6900 crore (69 billion) Chickens, 150 crore (1.5 billion) Pigs, 65.6 crore (656 million) Turkeys, 57.4 crore (574 million) Sheep, 47.9 crore (479 million) Goats and 30.2 crore (302 million) Cattle were slaughtered for meat production around the world. The world in fact now produces more than 4 times the quantity of meat as it did 50 years ago.
It can be hard to wrap one’s head around these figures that one encounters in such an analysis. Online animal slaughter counters like vegancalculator, though conservative in their estimates, can give some visual cue to the scale and speed of the operation. If one is to go by the above mentioned 2018 statistics from UNFAO, globally within 30 seconds, about 60,000 Chickens, 1400 Pigs, 600 Turkeys, 430 Goats and 300 Cattle would be slaughtered for meat at any given time.
Since the figures of the world fisheries and aquaculture run in trillions, ‘tonnage in millions’ is a more convenient metric that’s used to quantify them. As per FAO’s The state of the world fisheries report 2018, this amounted to 17.8 crore tonnes (178.5 million tonnes).
Fishing in the developed world, and increasingly in the developing, exemplifies the absolute pinnacle of human ingenuity when it comes to systematically emptying the oceans of life forms on an unimaginable scale. Fish aggregate devices (FADs), radars, echo sounders, navy developed electronic navigation systems, satellite based GPS and maps of ocean temperatures have brought in a paradigm change in the world of fishing.
Using these technologies control rooms of fishing vessels get to know how much fish is present in the vicinity allowing fishermen to catch entire shoals of fish in a go. Long line fishing with thousands of hooks, each reaching up to 45km in length have allowed vessels to haul in well over 50 tonnes of catch in a matter of minutes. Mega-sized trawling nets on the other hand can capture up to 500 tonnes of catch.
Fishing in the developed world, and increasingly in the developing, exemplifies the absolute pinnacle of human ingenuity when it comes to systematically emptying the oceans of life forms on an unimaginable scale
The Tragedy of By-Catch
40% of all fish caught globally is by-catch, that is caught by accident. This accidental by-catch amounts to 300,000 small whales and dolphins, 250,000 endangered turtles and about 300,000 seabirds every year. As many as 50 million sharks are caught on long lines worldwide as by-catch . Almost all of these dead, dying or grievously wounded animals are then either tossed back into the sea or disposed off on land. Species like shrimp for example have a devastatingly high proportion of by-catch. 1Kg of shrimp caught for instance can result anywhere from 5-20Kg of by–catch.
The issue of by-catch is further exacerbated by abandoned fishing equipment called Ghost nets, which according to the World Animal Protection amounts to around 640,000 tonnes left in oceans each year. These can stay in the oceans for up to 600 years, trapping 100s of thousands of whales, seals, turtles and birds each year, resulting in their protracted and painful deaths, either by starvation or due to grievous injuries.
Irrespective of ghost nets or by-catch, a protracted and painful death is in fact the only way of dying for a fish, since the very concept of humane slaughter (an oxymoron that we’ll return to in Part 3) is non existent in the fishing world. The best case is for them is to be entangled in the nets just for a few hours and not more. For this would minimise the pain caused by the deep gashes on their gills, eyes and mouth caused by being dragged in these nets under water, to eventually be hauled up onto the deck, where they can then begin their journey of slowly suffocating to death. A lot is in fact said by how the occasional contortions, of a suffocating fish writhing in pain at a fish market is seen by most; not so much as a sign of anguish but that of freshness.
It would be quite an understatement to say that the production of animal products has undergone a revolution in terms of the quantity produced and the sophistication of technology employed to achieve it. Humans have quite literally waged a war on animals, by virtue of the technology that is brought to bear against them
In case of India however, fishing is not so technology driven as in the developed world. However, India happens to be among the top 3 shark fishing nations of the world. Fishing of Whale sharks for instance is a grim reminder of what the most modest ways of fishing can achieve in terms of indiscriminate killings. Whale sharks were hunted almost to extinction along the Gujarat coast, until they were given protection under schedule I of the Wildlife protection act 1972 in 2001.
A lot is in fact said by how the occasional contortions, of a suffocating fish writhing in pain at a fish market is seen by most; not so much as a sign of anguish but that of freshness
Life in a Factory Farm
To get an idea of how most of our animal products are produced at scale, it’s important to look at factory farming, a practice that has been in place in the developed world for decades, and serves as a blueprint of efficiency, for the developing world to follow. It would be quite an understatement to say that the production of animal products has undergone a revolution in terms of the quantity produced and the sophistication of technology employed to achieve it. Humans have quite literally waged a war on animals, by virtue of the technology that is brought to bear against them.
This is a war of intensive industrial animal farming in which the animals are kept in high stocking densities, limited in their mobility, genetically engineered and fed unnatural diets that often include exorbitant amounts of antibiotics and growth hormones. This ensures to maximise production while minimising the production costs involved, including the cost of keeping these animals healthy. Such intensive ways of raising animals in confined spaces arguably make their lives as miserable as possible before their eventual slaughter.
The most common way of keeping chickens is in battery cages, where up to 10 chickens can be stuffed, making it impossible for them to stand up, turn around or even stretch their wings. Over crowding and stressful conditions of this sort often take away a chicken’s ability to work in the interest of the group. While some chickens become violent, others at times can begin cannibalising each other, a behaviour that is not seen outside of factory farm conditions.
To prevent this, chickens are made to undergo a procedure of beak trimming. Unlike the trimming of nails in humans, beak trimming in chickens is far from being an exercise in self grooming. With an extensive nervous supply and presence of pain receptors, the beak is a complex, functional organ, and its trimming makes for an excruciating and often traumatic experience for the chickens. The resulting chronic pain has shown to reduce pecking behaviour and overall activity in the days immediately post trimming.
The labels of ‘free range’ and ‘cruelty free’ are mostly empty reassurances and should provide no more peace of mind to a conscious customer than buying conventional eggs. The myth of free range and happy hens has been assiduously built by an industry where cruelty has been normalised. These chickens still spend most of their lives indoors in congestion. According to the USDA for instance, for chickens to be free range, the birds must be “allowed access to the outside”, which means that a shed of 30,000 chickens with a small door at one end, that is opened occasionally, without the chickens physically going outside, would still qualify as free range.
Selective breeding has made it possible to induce specific favourable traits in animals by altering their genes over generations. There are 2 genetically distinct types of factory chickens with vastly different metabolisms that have been engineered through selective breeding. ‘Layers’ that are meant for laying eggs, and Broilers that are meant to be slaughtered for meat.
By manipulating food and light, modern poultry farms have managed to mimic seasonal variations, to tap into the natural ovulation cycle of layer hens, thereby making them produce eggs throughout the year. This ensures that a single chicken lays well over 400 eggs in a year, which is almost 3 to 4 times as many as in nature.
It should be noted that these are standard industry practices, and not a one off case. The myth of free range and happy hens has been assiduously built by an industry where cruelty has been normalised
Laying excessive eggs, well beyond their natural limits, often leaves them with debilitating conditions of skeletal deformities like slipped vertebrae, walking impairment, chronic pain, including heart and respiratory diseases. Since the shells of eggs require calcium for their formation, these chickens often have brittle and weak bones, crippling deformities and suffer spontaneous fractures- a condition commonly referred to as Cage Layer Fatigue (CLF). This prevents them from accessing their feed and water, putting them at a greater risk of eventually starving to death.
In India, though poultry is yet to reach such levels of commercial precision as in the developed parts of the world, we are for all intents and purposes, striving to emulate similar models to increase productivity. As per the National action plan for egg and poultry 2022 of the Department of animal husbandry and dairying – the aim is to reach an average egg production across all chicken varieties to 250 from the existing 220 as part of doubling farmers’ income by 2022.
Selective breeding has engineered the misery of Broilers in a different manner. Chickens once had a life expectancy of 20 yrs, modern broilers on the other hand undergo a rapid growth, and are killed roughly around 6 weeks. Their disproportionate bodies become the cause of such dysfunction that they simply cannot be allowed to live past their adolescence. KFC chickens for instance are almost always killed in 39 days, that’s how rapidly they grow in size. A cross sectional study by the University of Saskatchewan, Canada in 2012, found that 60+ years of intensive breeding has increased the incidence of congenital deformities in broilers by 5-10 fold.
Birth defects and grotesque congenital anomalies like missing or multiplicity of limbs and exposed cranial cavity are increasingly becoming common in broilers. Among other environmental and nutritional factors, the narrowing of the gene pool because of selective breeding, has been a major cause for such monstrosities, which then have to be killed at birth.
Through systematically engineering animals to suit specific needs of production and profit, we are breeding animals that are simply incapable of surviving in any environment other than the most artificial of settings
The Inconvenient Chick
One of the most gruesome, yet lesser known fact about the egg industry is the fate of all the male layer chicks. Since they’ve not been engineered for meat like broilers, and are biologically incapable of laying eggs, all male chicks are killed shortly after birth. This is done either by asphyxiation, i.e. tossing them into plastic bins where they slowly suffocate to death, or by sending fully conscious chicks through a conveyor belt to high speed macerators or grinders, where they are then shred into bits.
Over 600 crore (6 billion) male chicks are killed every year, around the world by the egg industry. As per a 2014 article in Business Standard, close to 18 crore male chicks, a figure that almost certainly has gone up since then, are killed in India, shortly after birth either by grinding or through suffocation and drowning.
It should come as no surprise that the likes of Yuval Noah Harari, have called industrial farming as “one of the worst crimes in history”, where “tens of billions of sentient beings, each with complex sensations and emotions, live and die on a production line.”
Animals as Machines of Reproduction
Fertility of an animal on a factory farm is a cause of it’s particular misfortune. 60-70% of sows (female pigs) in the US for example, are confined during pregnancy and most of their adult life, in a 2 X 7 feet gestation crate, a space just large enough for them to lie down on their side to nurse their litter.
Such intensive confinement restricts any form of natural movement like standing up or turning around, resulting in body sores and elevated levels of stress hormones. They endure this life, most of which is spent in these gestation crates, for 3 years on average. During this time they give birth to a litter of 10 to 12 piglets, twice a year. Once they’ve served their purpose of giving birth to piglets, and are spent from a fertility point of view, they are all culled from the herd.
I became a vegetarian because I read a book about intensive farming and I was utterly shocked. And I didn’t realise animals were treated in that way, of course I do now. So the next time I looked at a piece of meat on my plate, I thought this symbolises fear, pain and death and I don’t want to eat that.
— Jane Goodall
Constantly having to give birth to young ones also causes what’s called a Prolapse, wherein the internal organs droop, often protruding out of the rectum or vagina. This is a common problem seen in cows, pigs and chickens on factory farms in the developed countries, where animal agriculture is heavily commercialised. The animals almost always have to be culled in case the prolapse is severe, since they become a liability for the industry.
Similar to beak trimming in broilers, male piglets 2 to 3 weeks old, that are not suitable for breeding purposes, are castrated by cutting off their testicles with a knife, without any sort of anesthesia or pain suppressant. Though this causes extreme pain to the piglets that lasts up to 5 days, it helps to ensure that the pigs become less aggressive and therefore much easier to manage.
Future Pandemics in the Making
Factory farms and wet markets where different animals are confined in proximity, serve as ideal places for the growth, proliferation and mutation of viral microbes. The Asian flu pandemic of 1957-58 and the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968 were both associated with animal agriculture. Even the last pandemic, the SARS outbreak of 2002, was a direct result of the insanitary conditions of wet markets of wild animals in Guangdong, China.
As evidenced by the present pandemic, yet again, the future of human health is inextricably linked to our relationship with animals. A case in point was the 2004 joint conference of the World health organisation, UN Food and agriculture organisation and the World organisation for animal health that had released a report on emerging zoonotic diseases, and listed ‘demand of animal protein leading to changes in farming practices’ as a primary risk factor for zoonotic disease emergence
It’s therefore not surprising that, breeding genetically uniform, sickness prone animals, in over crowded and feces infested environments, by injecting them with anti microbial drugs, under artificial conditions of light and feed, allows for the growth and mutation of pathogens.The rampant abuse of antibiotics and growth hormones in the dairy and poultry industry in India for instance, have also often been brought up in discussions regarding the growing instances of antibiotic resistance among people.
The WHO released the Global influenza strategy 2019-2030 in March 2019, and it had the following ominous line in it’s introduction- “Although it is impossible to predict when the next pandemic might occur, its occurrence is considered inevitable, and it could well occur during the time frame of this strategy.” What unfolded 10 months later as COVID-19, could well be what defines the next decade.
Slaughterhouse- The Final Deliverance
When dealing with such mind boggling figures of animals to be slaughtered and processed, the standard procedures of rendering the animal insensible before skinning and disembowelment can often appear to be a mere inconvenience for those working at the kill floor in slaughterhouses. The constant violence, mutilation and dismemberment often inoculates slaughterhouse workers from feeling any sort of empathy towards these animals, and long shifts can put them in a tremendous psychological strain. Conditions of this sort can often manifest deviant behaviours of the most extreme type among these workers.
Under cover slaughterhouse video footage testify countless cases of animals being sadistically killed by workers in slaughterhouses in many countries. In some video taped instances workers have been documented sawing off pigs’ legs and skinning them while they’re still fully conscious. Abuses like kicking, stabbing and bludgeoning pigs by hammers and by slamming them against concrete floors or ripping the heads off of chickens are not uncommon, and have all been documented by animal rights organisations time and again. Since these footage only provide a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors of slaughterhouses, one can imagine how heartrendingly common these practices are, especially if one considers the scale of these operations.
The more one reads about and watches the methods employed for slaughtering animals, the more it becomes obvious that these animals feel their slaughter in every sense of the word.
In India for instance, once they reach maturity, broilers are put on transportation crates where they are to travel long distances jammed together to meat shops. The sight of chickens dangling upside down on jeeps and two wheelers as they’re brought to these meat shops is fairly common in small cities. Because of no food or water given to them in transit and rough handling, many birds arrive at the meat shops with broken bones.
They are then kept in wire cages, called ‘khokhaas’, from which they watch themselves being slaughtered one after the other. Since live meat market sales account for 90-95% of the total volume of sales, chickens are slaughtered manually in filthy conditions. In the developed world, the system of slaughter is mechanised and equally gruesome. The following is an excerpt from the book ‘Eating animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer, where he describes the mechanised slaughter of chickens-
“The conveyor system drags the birds through an electrified water bath. This most likely paralysis them, but doesn’t render them insensible. Other countries including many European countries require, legally at least that chickens be rendered unconscious or killed prior to bleeding and scalding. In America where the USDA’s interpretation of the Humane methods of slaughter act exempts chicken slaughter, the voltage is kept low, about 1/10th the level necessary to render the animals unconscious. After it has traveled through the bath, a paralysed bird’s eyes might still move. Sometimes the birds will have enough control of their bodies to slowly open their beaks as though attempting to scream. The next stop on the line for the immobile but conscious bird will be an automated throat slitter. Blood will slowly drain out of the bird unless the relevant arteries are missed which happens according to another worker I spoke with, all the time. So you’ll need a few more workers to function as backup slaughterers, kill men who would slit the throats of the birds that the machine misses, unless they too miss the birds, which I was also told happens all the time.”
The more one reads about and watches the methods employed for slaughtering animals, the more it becomes obvious that these animals feel their slaughter in every sense of the word
In the absence of a tangible corrective, Part 2 might understandably come across as depressive and lacking in hope. But it felt important to me to bring out the most salient of issues at one place, that are deserving of being discussed in their own right. There are still issues left that pertain to the dairy industry and the concept of animal testing that we’ll briefly touch in the next part. Dismal as things might be, the corrective to this perfectly preventable misery, lies not in the nuances of the processes involved, but instead in the very mindset that commodifies animals in the first place. As we move to the 3rd and final part in this introspection series, we’ll now turn to the ethical philosophy of Veganism and test one of its strongest arguments.
- Genocide Neglect and Psychic numbing by Paul Slovic
- Figures of Slaughter
- Peter Singer in The Guardian- ‘Fish the forgotten victims on our plate’
- Shark fishing in India
- Maneka Gandhi on beak trimming of chickens
- 2012 Study on congenital deformities among broilers
- Culling of male chicks in India
- Yuval Noah Harari on Industrial farming
- Undercover slaughterhouse footage
- Humane Slaughter act of US